When I talk to people about the parallels between my mothering and my making, my standard quip has become, “They both keep me up at night.” Whilst this is a joke it is also utterly true.
“Are you getting any sleep?” is the question people ask of new mothers. As someone who has never been good at sleeping I experienced those first few months of motherhood as something of a relief – at last, apparently, I had a legitimate, publicly acceptable reason for being tired and having disturbed, difficult nights. That period of legitimacy lasted for roughly six months. After that the nights of a hundred ‘shoulds’ began…..
Your child should be sleeping through the night. I am 43. I still do not sleep through the night. I never did – ask my mother. Your child should be in bed by 7pm. Mine are still rampaging round the house at 9, only just settling down at 10, asleep by 1030ish. Children should be getting 12 hours sleep a night and adults should be getting 8. My children get about 9.5 hours. I get about 6 broken ones. Your child should be able to get to sleep on their own – they should be able to self-soothe. I have breastfed my children to sleep. I have breastfed them back to sleep throughout the night. I have still not learnt the art of self-soothing myself – I will consider it an accomplishment if I have sorted this out by the time I am 50. Your child should be sleeping in his/ her own bed. Mine are in their own bed but I am in that bed with them. Once the children are asleep you should: a) catch up on your work; b) clean the house; c) have sex; d) go to bed yourself so you are well rested. It is a rare night when I manage to do any of these.
The list of night-time shoulds goes on…. The above is a sample of the main ones I have encountered but there are many others. Why so many? Why so much judgement and therefore shame around this most fundamental of needs? I think it is in part precisely because it is so fundamental - it makes such a difference to our days, and it takes place at night. It is our vulnerable time. The time when we curl up into ourselves. The time when we dream. The time when we worry. The time when we close our eyes and all the things that we have stored away behind them come out to meet us – fears, hopes, grief, hurt, anxieties.
As I mentioned the skill of self-soothing that our babies are supposed to master is still one that I am working at in my middle age. So far I have found my work as an artist the most soothing thing that I can do – being engaged in making something. There is a poem by Alice Walker that I love called How Poems are Made, A Discredited View. It goes;
“There is a place the fear must go. There is a place the choice must go. There is a place the loss must go. The leftover love.”
Yes, I recognise this. My making work both keeps me up at night and yet it can also give me a kind of rest, a place for the fear / loss / love to go. It can resource me. Sometimes I think it can make up for my broken, short nights – a kind of dreaming while I am awake. But not entirely…. When at last I get some rare time in the day when the children are being cared for by someone else and I sit down to do my making, I find that in doing so I have to check in to how I truly am and as soon as I do that I realise I am exhausted - all I can do is to lie down.
So what am I asking? I know what I am not asking. I am not asking what the answer is. I am not asking what your tips and tricks are to get the kids to sleep through, to self-soothe, to go to bed early. I am more interested in asking this: how can we be kinder to ourselves and one another about our nights? About how much or little sleep we and our children have? About how tired we are? And if we were, if we were to ‘shush’ the many ‘shoulds’ out of the bedroom what would we do? How would that be? What would you dream of then? What would you make?